Pakistani Christians fight to keep faith

Times Staff Writer

Followed by a gaggle of children, Julius Salik walks a muddy dirt track in one of this city’s squalid Christian slums, past open sewers and ramshackle homes with stick roofs.

With a weary sigh, he motions to a row of neat brick apartment buildings just a few hundred yards away.

“Muslims live there,” says the 60-year-old social worker and former federal minister. “Good construction. Big houses. Big cars.”


Pakistan, he says, is a place of extremes. Muslims represent the vast majority of this Islamic homeland’s 162 million residents. They control the legislature and economy, often leaving minorities to endure second-rate status.

For years, Salik has waged an unorthodox human rights campaign of public protests he says is necessary to get the attention of a neglectful government.

He has gone on hunger strikes, cut himself, burned his clothes and furniture and even lived in a cage -- all in an effort to improve the lives of Ahmadis, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and especially Christians like himself.

In 1996, then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto nominated him for a Nobel Peace Prize. But now Bhutto has been assassinated. And Salik says Christians here are in more trouble than ever.

“I want to tell the government that Christians are not afraid of them,” he said. “We’re willing to fight.”

For an estimated 6,000 Christians here, religious equality is the elusive Pakistani dream. Because of restrictive laws, they are barred from equal pay, educational opportunities and housing.

Intimidated by rising Islamic extremism, many are afraid to wear any outward symbols of their faith. Dozens are in jail on the basis of draconian blasphemy laws that forbid anyone to defame Islam.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wants the State Department to name Pakistan a “country of particular concern.”

“It’s one of the most serious problem spots for religious freedom in the entire world,” said Felice Gaer, director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights and a former chairwoman of the commission.

“Discriminatory legislation has fostered an atmosphere of religious intolerance and eroded the legislative status of people who belong to minorities.”

The alliance between the government of President Pervez Musharraf and the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, a coalition of six Islamist political parties, gives inordinate influence to these extremist groups and has seriously compromised freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Pakistan, she said.

Since joining the U.S. as an ally in its war on terrorism in 2001, Musharraf has publicly urged Pakistanis to shun radical Islam and pursue “enlightened moderation.”

But each year, Pakistani children are taught that Jews are tightfisted moneylenders and Christians vengeful conquerors -- all in textbooks approved by the administration.

Rashid Qureshi, a Musharraf spokesman, said Pakistan is making strides toward religious equality. “We are empowering these people to play a greater role here,” he said.

“We now have military generals who are Christian. This isn’t just a Muslim nation or even a Muslim army. We now even have an officer cadet who is a Sikh.”

Still, minority religions face inordinate dangers. Last year, a husband and wife missionary team from the U.S. were shot in the head execution-style. Minorities are threatened if they do not convert to Islam. Developers in Lahore demolished a Christian church, evicting the priest and destroying a Bible and cross.

The extremists who kidnapped and killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2002 made him declare he was Jewish immediately before beheading him.

Zafar Javed, a Pentecostal minister in Rawalpindi, said he has been attacked by Muslims for trying to convert new members. “They held me for three hours,” he said. “ ‘Don’t preach here,’ they said. ‘Don’t spread your Christian books.’ ”

Equally troublesome, human rights activists say, are the blasphemy laws, which carry a penalty of life imprisonment and even death -- often without evidence or any penalty for false accusations.

Salik said Muslims use the law to take over the homes of Christians and rid neighborhoods of unwanted minorities. Government officials deny those charges.

A 2007 U.S. State Department report said that no person in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy. But in May, a Christian man already imprisoned for two years was sentenced to death. His crime: He told a group of Muslims to lower their noise because his family was mourning the loss of his nephew, whose body was laid out in his home. The men accused him of blasphemy.

Several Christian nurses in an Islamabad hospital last year were charged for allegedly drawing lines through Koranic verses on a notice board -- even though there were no witnesses.

“Blasphemy is used as a weapon,” Gaer said. “Once charged, you can be in prison for years while your case is adjudicated.”

Discrimination comes in small and large doses, Christians say.

Local artist Jamil Masih says it’s impossible to get his work displayed at galleries. “They might even like the work at first, but once they find out I’m Christian, they won’t show it.”

Many minorities switch to Muslim names and even deny their religion rather than face harassment. Those who don’t pay the price.

Aleem Dahir, a 36-year-old chauffeur from Lahore, recently applied for work at an international nongovernmental organization in Islamabad. He was told the group was looking for a Muslim, not a Christian.

“It’s not fair,” he said. “But who can I go to?”

Even self-professed liberal Pakistanis say they stand firm about the blasphemy laws.

“There is a line I won’t let anyone cross,” said Agsa Aamir, who has a master’s degree in community sciences. “I go back to my roots, my religion, my prophet, the holy Koran. You insult those and you will be punished, even if it means death.”

Tolerance for religious minorities has plummeted since Bhutto’s father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was executed in 1979 following a coup orchestrated by Gen. Zia ul-Haq.

Haq launched a campaign to “Islamicize” the nation, enacting numerous restrictive ordinances, including the blasphemy laws.

The grandson of a Catholic priest, Salik said life for Pakistani Christians changed overnight. “Christians couldn’t go to hotels. Businesses posted signs that said ‘No Christians,’ ” he said. “You couldn’t even drink from the same cup as a Muslim.”

In 1977, Salik was elected to Pakistan’s General Assembly, where he would serve for the next two decades. Still, he was allowed to represent only Christians in his district.

He soon began his protests, and was jailed seven times.

Salik left politics in 1996 to found World Minorities Alliance, a nonprofit social service group he runs from a converted home in Islamabad. But his battle has not ended.

When the government cut electricity to Christian slums, he wore black robes and advocated that black flags be hoisted over all Christian homes.

But he has also sought solidarity with Muslims, showing his support by living in a cage during the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s irony, he says, is that the country was created for Muslims by the British in 1947 as a shelter against Indian oppression. “But they have forgotten what it is like to be the underdog,” he said. “So we must remind them.”

On a tour of a Christian slum he has worked to improve, he leads dozens of grade-school students in a prayer. When it’s over, the group repeatedly shouts, “Hallelujah!”

“It’s an emotional country,” Salik says with a smile. “Not just for Muslims. Christians get emotional, too.”